Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

Stars: 3 out of 5.

I feel bad giving this book less than a stellar rating, because it raises some pretty important issues about inclusion and the casual mistreatment of those who are different. It also talks about trauma and healing and finding your purpose in life. So all the things that should be right up my alley, right? Yes this book left me pretty much cold. 

I see several problems with the narrative that made it so this book didn’t work for me.

First, there is too much going on. There are demons ready to buy your soul and the competitive world of violin music. There are aliens escaping the collapse of a distant civilization. There is a traumatized transgender kid who is trying to find her way in this world that has never showed her kindness. There is the Queen of Hell, who already damned the souls of six of her most brilliant violin students and only need to collect one more to buy back her own.

On each own, all these stories would make a wonderful book. Reading about Katrina finding her own voice and melting the Queen of Hell’s heart in the process would have been wonderful. Reading about Lan Thran building a new life on Earth for her family and finding a modicum of happiness. And also realizing that music might be just the thing that could heal the soul of her dying civilization. Or even reading about the strange and cutthroat world of violin competitions and the violin repair shop owner who had the power to repair and exorcise cursed violins. And it is also a story about immigrants and refugees who are trying to rebuild a life on distant shores, as demonstrated by the Asian diaspora in California. 

Unfortunately, mashing them all together into the same narrative did a disservice to all of the stories. First, it felt like a clash of ideas, but more importantly, there wasn’t enough time to develop each story to the extent that it needed to be developed. There were too many characters to keep track of, as a result, almost none of them felt fleshed out. I could honestly say that the only two characters that felt “alive” to me were Katrina and Shirley. Ironic, isn’t it, considering Shirley is an AI?

As it stands, I felt like all the stories were underdeveloped then forcibly woven together to create a happy ending. 

Also, I found that for a book that seemingly had such high stakes – the souls of two women in jeopardy, aliens fleeing the destruction of their civilization, etc. I never felt any urgency in the narrative. We are told that the stakes are high, but we aren’t shown that. Apart from that last competition where Katrina plays her heart out, I never felt like any of the characters were in real danger. 

It might also be because violence is glossed over or threated with a passing shrug and nothing else in this story. Katrina is raped by her roommate and it is barely mentioned afterwards. I mean, she was betrayed by someone she trusted, yet again, but we will not dwell into that? Or when Lan’s son casually kills a civilian and then Lan just disintegrates his friends so that they wouldn’t go to the police? There is no aftermath for her for that. Oh, we just killed four people. Oh well, moving on. That felt very callous to me, especially in a story that talks about how music can heal our souls.

The ending is also something I didn’t like about this book. I understand the author’s desire to end the story on a good note, to create a happy ever after ending. Unfortunately, it cheapens Katrina’s sacrifice and self-realization during the violin competition, and also Shizuka’s real sacrifice after it, when she chose to forfeit her soul instead of damning Katrina. Shizuka was bound to Hell. That was the choice and the sacrifice she’d willingly made. It would have made for a heart-breaking, but beautiful ending of the book. One that I would have remembered and praised. Getting her out of that bargain by cope out space aliens was wrong, in my opinion. It sends the message that no matter what horrible things you did in your life, you can always escape punishment if you have the right friends. 

I would also argue that the way this book treated Katrina’s trauma was very “fairy tale” ending as well. She has severe PTSD from all the abuse she’d suffered from her family and those around her. She has self-loathing and self-image issues. Winning one competition and finding her music won’t solve all that. Finding one person who loves and support you helps, but doesn’t eliminate the trauma. Katrina needs serious therapy and years of work and recovery to be whole. Yet that part is completely glossed over. 

So yes, I like all the ideas in this book and a deep dive into violins and music was fascinating. I just didn’t particularly like how they were blended together in this book. 

PS: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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